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    Middle East
     Aug 11, 2009
New nuke report debunks Iran hawks
By Daniel Luban

WASHINGTON - Iran is unlikely to be able to produce enough highly enriched uranium (HEU) for a nuclear weapon until at least 2013, according to a United States government intelligence estimate made public last Thursday.

The US State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research (INR) prepared the estimate, which sets a notably later date for Iran's acquisition of a nuclear capability than other claims that have recently circulated in the media. Director of National Intelligence Dennis Blair submitted it in written testimony to the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence in February.

The publication of the estimate comes at a particularly sensitive time in Washington, as the US debates how best to proceed in

 

dealing with Iran in the wake of June's disputed election and the Iranian government's subsequent crackdown on protesters.

Many Iran analysts have called for the US to do nothing for the time being while the political situation within Iran develops - holding off on its planned engagement with Tehran while at the same time avoiding confrontational measures such as the imposition of additional sanctions.

But hawks in the US and Israel have argued that there is no time to spare in dealing with the Iranian nuclear program, and that the US should quickly move to sanctions targeting Iran's refined petroleum imports if engagement does not bear fruit by the end of September.

There has also been a great deal of speculation about whether Israel would undertake a unilateral military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities if it is not satisfied with the progress of negotiations - Israeli leaders have refused to rule out the possibility.

The INR estimate, which comes on the heels of other estimates suggesting that Iran is years away from a nuclear capability, may serve to defuse the crisis atmosphere that has come to characterize discussion of the issue in Washington and Jerusalem, and bolster those calling for patience in dealing with Tehran.

Blair's testimony to the senate, in which the estimate appeared, was released in response to a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request by Steven Aftergood of the Federation of American Scientists (FAS), and published by Aftergood on the FAS website on Thursday.

The INR estimate stresses that it is not taking a position on whether Iran will make a "political decision" to produce HEU for a nuclear weapon, but rather on when Iran would have the "functional ability" to produce HEU should it choose to do so.

Iran has denied that it intends to produce a nuclear weapon, insisting that its nuclear program is for civilian use only.

Blair's testimony to the senate states that although Iran has "made significant progress since 2007 in installing and operating centrifuges, INR continues to assess that it is unlikely that Iran will have the technical capability to produce HEU before 2013."

The testimony also states, "Iran probably would use military-run covert facilities, rather than declared nuclear sites, to produce HEU."

According to Blair, the broader intelligence community has "no evidence that Iran has yet made the decision to produce highly enriched uranium, and INR assess that Iran is unlikely to make such a decision for at least as long as international scrutiny and pressure persist".

The INR's estimate is in line with other recent intelligence estimates suggesting that Iran is years away from a deliverable weapon, if it chose to pursue one.

Meir Dagan, chief of the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad, said in June that Iran would be capable of launching a bomb by 2014.

But more alarmist estimates have frequently been circulated in the media, providing grist for hawks who suggest that time is running out to prevent an Iranian bomb.

Last Monday, the Times of London reported that Iran "has perfected the technology to create and detonate a nuclear warhead and is merely awaiting the word from its Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, to produce its first bomb".

Citing unnamed "Western intelligence sources", the Times claimed that Iran "could feasibly make a bomb within a year of an order" from Khamenei.

Hawks quickly picked up the "one-year" estimate - met with skepticism by most intelligence analysts - as proof that there is no time to waste on engagement.

Last Tuesday, former US ambassador to the United Nations John Bolton appeared on Fox News, citing the Times report in suggesting that "pressure [is] building" on Israel to strike Iranian nuclear facilities.

Bolton warned that "we are so close to Iran actually getting a weapon that these fine calibrations that we have got six months, or eight months, or 10 months, all you have to do is be wrong by one day" for the US and Israeli strategic calculus to change dramatically.

Last Thursday, the Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz suggested that the "one-year" estimate was leaked to the Times by Israeli military intelligence.

Citing the fact that the head of the Israeli Military Intelligence Research Brigade used "almost identical terms to those of the Times" in a Tuesday briefing, Ha'aretz argued that the "timing of the articles implies that someone in Israel's defense establishment wanted to deliver an explicit, public declaration" to the media.

The INR report is not the first time that a US intelligence estimate has helped to frame the debate over Iran policy.

In 2007, the release of a National Intelligence Estimate (NIE) concluding that Iran had halted its nuclear weapons program - as opposed to its civilian nuclear program - in 2003 was widely seen as critical in alleviating political pressure to take a tougher line on Tehran.

In his February senate testimony, Blair refused to comment on the status or content of the upcoming NIE. The NIE is the consensus judgment of all 16 US intelligence agencies, and hence its findings are likely to be the subject of even more heated discussion than the just-released INR estimate.

The release of the Blair's testimony comes as Iran hawks in the US are exerting increasing political pressure on the Obama administration to ramp up sanctions on Tehran.

This month, the Forward reported that congressional leaders and hawkish Jewish organizations are planning a concerted political and lobbying effort in September to rally support for increased sanctions.

The primary bill under consideration, the Iran Refined Petroleum Sanctions Act, would punish firms exporting refined petroleum products to Iran.

The Barack Obama administration has suggested that Iran will have until the September 30 meeting of the UN General Assembly to respond positively to Washington's engagement, at which point it will consider more punitive measures.

However, many Iran experts have suggested that Tehran is in no position to negotiate at the moment, due to the political turmoil that followed the June 12 re-election of President Mahmud Ahmadinejad, which critics denounce as fraudulent.

As a result, many have called for a "tactical pause" in the US engagement strategy, in the words of National Iranian American Council president Trita Parsi.

The latest intelligence estimate may give the US some political breathing room to pursue such a pause.

(Inter Press Service)


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